Unfortunately, there are a few features you won't find on the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i. The need for CD playback is somewhat ameliorated by the iPod compatibility, but if the need to spin discs is important to you, you'll need to plug in a portable CD player to the auxiliary port--or consider upgrading to the otherwise-identical Radio CD 745i ($249). Satellite and HD Radio reception is also absent from the 735i. Those looking for the latter should consider the $179 Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD; it lacks an iPod dock, but the auxiliary input will suffice for quick and easy iPod hookups. And there are always plenty of other alternatives, as well as larger but cheaper shelf systems, many of which offer DVD playback in lieu of alarm clock functionality.
Those shortcomings aside, the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i is really designed for critical listeners willing to pay a premium for superior sound quality from radio programming and iPod-based music--and that's exactly what we put to the test. Using the included external FM wire antenna, the Radio 735i's sound quality on FM was above par on easy-to-receive stations, and it successfully pulled in most of the low-power college radio stations in our area. AM reception was less impressive, and even after we experimented with a bunch of different placement spots for the included antenna, AM sound was nothing special.
We next checked out Arcade Fire's Neon Bible album (ripped from CD to our iPod). We noted that the mighty organ that opens the title track was a tad less clear and the bass was slightly less defined than when listening on CD--but we'd ascribe those shortcomings to the compressed digital music on the iPod, not the Cambridge. That said, Neon Bible's densely orchestrated sound highlighted the limitations of the Cambridge Radio 735i's abilities. In other words, it sounded like a table radio, albeit one with better than average bass and volume capabilities. Don't expect sound comparable with home-theater-in-a-box or separates-based systems.
Moving on to less sonically challenging music highlighted the Radio 735i's strengths. Acoustic jazz from Miles Davis delivered an impressively direct sound: vocals had plenty of weight, and that's where the Cambridge really came into its own, sounding far better than average. Listening with our Sennheiser HD 580 headphones also delivered surprisingly impressive sound, especially when we boosted the bass.
The Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i's volume control raises and lowers the volume in discrete steps, and we sometimes wished for finer gradations between them. That said, we were happy to see Cambridge's designers provided variable bass and treble controls (plus or minus 4dB), and a loudness control that boosts the bass even more. Even after we pumped up the bass, the 735i's speakers didn't buzz or rattle. You can listen in mono, stereo or "wide," which we preferred because it opened up the sound--just a little--beyond the 14-inch spread of the speakers.
So, when the rubber meets the road, is the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i worth its $199 asking price? We would've preferred another upgrade or two besides just the iPod dock--but stepping up to the Polk Audio I-Sonic (with HD Radio, XM-ready satellite functionality, and a CD/DVD player) costs twice as much. As it is, we'd probably bite the bullet and pay the extra $100 for the Radio CD 745i and still feel happy that we're beating the price of the competing models from Bose, Boston, and Tivoli. But if you're really just looking for an iPod clock radio, there are plenty of other choices--everything from $100 iHome models to the Tivoli Audio iYiYi, which offers many of the same features of the Cambridge (alarm, radio, RDS support, iPod dock) in a more unconventional form factor--but for the exact same $300 price. Just don't expect them to sound as good as the Cambridge.
Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.